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Boycotting Israeli Goods Is Intellectually Bankrupt

25/08/2014 12:45 BST | Updated 22/10/2014 10:59 BST

At the Imperial War Museum in south London, there's an interesting exhibit about the movement to boycott Jewish shops and goods. It details the picketing of Jewish shops by groups of demonstrators, the isolation of Jewish students by their representative bodies, and the daubing of graffiti on Jewish-owned buildings and homes. It's Germany 1933, of course. As the exhibition makes clear, what starts with boycotts, and signs saying Kauf nicht bei Juden!, ends up with gas chambers and ovens.

There are worrying echoes today on the streets of Britain's cities.

In Manchester, anti-Israeli boycotters targeted Tesco, then Barclays Bank, then beauticians Kedem which sells Israeli beauty products. When a Manchester Labour councillor Pat Karney tried to reason with the protestors, and ask them to stop intimidating shop workers, he was shouted down.

In High Holborn, London a local Sainsbury's manager took the decision to remove kosher food from the shelves following protests. At a Tesco in Hodge Hill, Birmingham, a man was arrested for assault after attempting to remove kosher food.

Shabana Mahmood, the Labour MP for Birmingham Ladywood, took part in a direct action which led to a branch of Sainsbury's being closed for 30 minutes. In Brighton, a Green councillor, who called British soldiers 'hired killers', has proposed a boycott motion to Brighton and Hove council.

The Boycott Disvestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign, which calls for the isolation and delegitimatization of Israel, can call on prominent supporters including celebrities. British trade unions have passed pro-boycott motions, including Unite. Even a UK minister, Vince Cable, has threatened to end some sales of military equipment to Israel.

There is an intellectual bankruptcy at the heart of the campaign to boycott Israeli goods and services. Israel is not South Africa. The 'apartheid' tag doesn't apply to a modern, democratic state, where women, gays and Arabs have equal rights to vote, stand for election and become judges.

The protesters may target Kadem because it is Jewish-owned and sells mud packs from the Dead Sea. That's an easy target. But why don't they boycott Google, or their Intel processors, or their USB flashdrives, or Microsoft Office - all invented or developed by Israel's booming hi-tech sector?

How does protesting against the presence of kosher goods on the shelves of Tesco or Sainsbury's help the cause of peace in the Middle East? How does it advance Palestinian people's right to statehood? How does it help Israelis live a peaceful, secure life?

By conflating 'Israeli' with 'Jewish', the protesters run the risk of peddling the most vicious of antisemetic themes: that all Jews, including residents of Manchester or London, are responsible for actions of the Cabinet in Tel Aviv. It's like the English Defence League smashing up a halal butchers in Birmingham to protest against the actions of the government in Pakistan. It makes no sense whatsoever.

Labour leader Ed Miliband made his opposition to boycotts clear, when he told the Board of Deputies: 'any kind of delegitimisation of Israel is something we should call out for what it is, and not tolerate it. I think the boycotts of Israel are totally wrong. We should have no tolerance for boycotts.' That view is echoed by the president of the Palestinian Authority, Chairman Abbas, who told reporters 'No, we do not support the boycott of Israel.'

It is legitimate to protest against the actions of the Israeli government, if you disagree with them. In our democracy there are plenty of ways to register your views. You can march, picket, write letters, or shout slogans - all forms of legal protest that citizens enjoy in democratic states like the UK and Israel. Smashing up supermarkets isn't one of them.